Macquarie Centre, Sydney

You can almost feel the sweet heat of schadenfreude (1) radiating from certain planners every time competition from on-line shopping sees yet another US mall go under.

Some love to hate suburban malls (a.k.a. “hard-top” shopping centres). They’re criticised for promoting car travel, discouraging walkability, destroying traditional strip shopping centres, turning their back on their neighbours, and much more.

Here’s writer and ABC talking head Dom Knight explaining in Fairfax media why he hates shopping centres. He describes them as the retail format that’s destroying main streets.

There has to be a better way of doing retail than building these behemoths, surely? Can we not do a run to the shops without also needing 200 other shops alongside the shop we intended to go to in the first place?

He’s particularly affronted by Sydney’s Macquarie Centre where, he says, it “takes ages to find a park”, there’s a long walk from the car park and it’s hard not to get lost – nothing’s clearly signposted.

Moreover the shops are “bland chains”, the design is deliberately manipulative, and you can’t see out. Looking up you will see an atrium, he says, but “it’s the only view you’ll get of that”.

I haven’t visited the Macquarie Centre although I’m assured by others who have that it’s an an especially hard mall to navigate. But from what I can see dissing of malls is very much a minority preference.

The great bulk of the Australian population seem very partial to them; over the last 50-60 years they’ve comprehensively out-competed the traditional high street as the key destination for variety shopping.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Most malls offer much more choice in terms of the range of goods and services on offer, as well as price points, than competing strip centres.

That’s partly because mall owners actively manage the mix and performance of tenants (they ‘internalise’ externalities) and are usually bigger than traditional centres. It’s also because strip centres have tended to specialise as they’ve lost competitiveness (2).

Another reason for the success of malls is they offer a quality that many urbanists aspire to – they’re supremely walkable environments. They’re dense and there’s plenty of ‘buzz’.

There’s lots of people and plenty of places to shop, eat, play games, watch movies, meet up with friends, and be entertained.

Once they’re inside, users can go about their business without breathing car fumes like they would in a strip centre. They can eat lunch or have a coffee with others without having to shout over the roar of passing buses.

They don’t have to worry about their children getting run over. They can find a sanitary toilet. Larger malls have security; there’re no pubs with drunks; and some have child-minding facilities. They’re air-conditioned too, so they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.

Many retailers and service providers in malls are indeed chain stores as Mr Knight complains, but that’s irrelevant to most shoppers because they only use their nearest mall. From their point of view it doesn’t matter one iota if there are similar stores in other malls; what matters is chains offer advantages in pricing, product range and availability.

Critics complain that malls lack the sort of specialist stores found in some strip centres, but interesting retailers wouldn’t find the latter attractive if competition from malls hadn’t led to cheaper rents. Indeed, malls that lose favour are themselves ultimately likely to offer opportunities for niche retailers.

Malls are popular because they cater to a range of budgets in the low to middling range. More feted strip centres like those in the inner city, on the other hand, often specialise in a limited range of up-market uses, especially restaurants and bars.

I’m not suggesting malls don’t have faults. It’s true they rely almost entirely on car-based transport. But critics seem to implicitly imagine that if we’d never had suburban malls we’d all walk or train to our local strip centres, or even to the CBD.

I’m not convinced things would’ve been that different if malls had some how been stopped. I expect the advantages of scale and the cheapness of car travel mean a limited number of very large strip centres would have evolved to draw on a larger catchment.

The amount of driving would probably be less but not decisively so. An important difference though is traditional strip centres would’ve experienced much more redevelopment than they have and would likely have fewer specialist retailers. And there’d doubtless be complaints about chain stores invading the high street.

There are examples of malls that’ve been integrated successfully into traditional centres. But some, like this new one in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, turn their back on the street and their neighbours.

There are also examples of malls that are poorly serviced by public transport. Compared to Sydney, Melbourne has a relatively large number of major regional malls that were built away from existing public transport infrastructure.

Most of the extant malls are stand-alone operations, but there are more cases where higher density housing is being integrated with new projects or is being built nearby. Given many malls are on large sites, I expect we’ll see more intensive redevelopment in the future.

Like Mr Knight’s problem with navigating around the Macquarie Centre, these are mostly failings that could’ve been addressed by better planning and design; they don’t negate the idea of malls.

Although Mr Knight wonders why we need 200 shops alongside the one we’re going to, people generally prefer large agglomerations, whether in the form of malls or strip centres. They provide the benefits of scale and the advantages of comparison and complementary shopping (3). As Harold Hotelling explained, firms do too.

I get it that many sophisticates have no interest in suburban malls and some actively dislike them (4). But I have no doubt the great majority of Australians like their malls. What we need to do is to find less socially costly ways of travelling to and from them.

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  1. There’s an english equivalent for taking pleasure from the misfortune of others but ‘epicaricacy’ isn’t anywhere near as well-known as the loan-word ‘schadenfreude’.
  2. To some degree it’s also because traditional centres have been held back by local residents who make it hard for them to adapt by, e.g., expanding upwards and/or outwards.
  3. See also Malls & strips: what’s the difference? and What’s so bad about regional malls?
  4. In some cases I suspect it might also be disdain for the sort of people who patronise malls.
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